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On Track? Greenbush Ridership Rising, But Not Enough to Satisfy All

Originally published in The Boston Globe

October 28, 2009
Johanna Seltz (Reporter, The Boston Globe

Alice Horner likes having the choice of a scenic commuter boat ride to her job in Boston, in good weather, or the Greenbush train when the weather is foul.

Offering commuters that choice, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo, as well as taking cars off the road, was the point of reopening the 18-mile Greenbush line, 48 years after it stopped operation.

But as the second anniversary of the Greenbush line approaches this Halloween, its critics remain unconvinced that the train was worth the expense or can meet its goals.

The MBTA says just wait.

"This is a 100-year investment in the Commonwealth’s infrastructure, and no reasonable person could make a judgment [about Greenbush’s performance] in 24 months," Pesaturo said. "But right now, we’re very encouraged.’"

Greenbush had its busiest month ever in September - an average of 6,462 riders a day, if you count them going into Boston and back, he said. Greenbush was the only part of the three-pronged Old Colony branch to see an increase in ridership, he said.

The numbers mean the Greenbush line is almost three-quarters of the way to the MBTA’s projected ridership of 8,400 trips by 2010-2012, he said.

Critics, however, point to the $513 million price of building Greenbush - almost as much as it cost for both the Kingston/Plymouth and Middleborough/Lakeville legs of the Old Colony branch - and question whether it was warranted.

"For people who work near South Station, it’s a good deal," said state Senator Robert Hedlund, a Republican from Weymouth who opposed Greenbush. "The downside is it’s created huge budgetary difficulties for the T. The fact that they utilized a half-billion dollars of their bonding capacity for Greenbush has prevented them from doing some other projects that were more cost-beneficial.’"

He cited as examples extending MBTA service to Somerville and Lynn.

"Is it nice to have a train? Sure," said David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. "In a world of scarce resources - which we’re really in - is that the wisest use of public resources? I’m a skeptic."

But even the skeptics concede that Greenbush ridership is growing, although it’s still the second lightest-used commuter rail line in the system.

According to the MBTA, on the first day of its operation 1,271 passengers took the Greenbush line north to Boston; 775 took the train south away from the city. Those numbers quickly doubled, and are now three times as high.

Figuring out how those passengers commuted before Greenbush is an inexact science, though. The question is relevant because the original rationale for building the Greenbush line was to take cars off the road.

Pesaturo said many of the new rail passengers were once highway commuters, and the numbers of cars on Route 3 have fallen since Greenbush trains started running. Measuring between exits 14 and 15 in Hingham, the state counted an average of 95,174 cars a day in 2006. The number was down to 92,571 in 2008.

But Adam Hurtubise of the state Executive Office of Transportation said the decrease is likely from a variety of factors.

"The Greenbush line is one factor," he said. "The poor economy and high unemployment are among the other factors."

Harvard’s Luberoff, whose institute has studied the effect of commuter rail on Greater Boston, said another complicating element is that many people who chose to ride trains had been in carpools before, not driving alone into Boston.

"Given that we’re talking about a couple of thousand people, the impact on congestion will be completely minimal," he said.

"[Another] interesting thing about the Greenbush line is that transit use on the corridor was relatively high [before the train] because of the commuter boat," Luberoff said. "You can assume roughly a quarter of the people taking the train were already taking the boat."

Horner is part of that demographic. She started commuting by boat three years ago, and switched to the Greenbush line in bad weather about a year ago because the train gets her closer to where she works in Boston.

"I feel guilty because I love the boat; it’s such a beautiful way to go," she said. "Nothing beats watching the sunrise in the morning and sunset at night. But I just got sick of walking down to the boat when it was freezing cold, and I finally broke down and decided to take the train."

In fact, ridership on the Hingham commuter boat fell about 37 percent when the Greenbush line opened, said Alison Nolan, general manager of Boston Harbor Cruises, which operates the boat for the MBTA. She said ridership has grown, but is still about 25 percent less than it was before Greenbush.

"It’s hard to say if it’s 100 percent directly related, but there’s certainly a correlation with commuter rail and the dramatic decline in ridership," she said.

The Quincy and Hull commuter boats also lost riders with the Greenbush line’s arrival but regained many, especially when it added more frequent service to Hull, said Bill Walker, co-owner of Water Transportation Alternatives, the T’s contractor for the Quincy and Hull runs.

Pesaturo acknowledged that some commuters switched from boat to train, but said the combined number of people taking both has increased.

"There’s an increase in the number of people using public transit, and that is the goal," he said.

The future of the boats, though, is uncertain.

Earlier this year the MBTA released a list of potential service cuts that included the elimination of boat service. The list also included scrapping weekend service on the Greenbush line: Ridership on Saturday and Sunday is a fraction of the weekday figures.)

Pesaturo said no decisions will be made until the governor receives a top-to-bottom review of the MBTA’s finances, a report expected early next month.

The South Shore Chamber of Commerce supported Greenbush as an economic catalyst for the area, and vice president John Stobierski said he sees signs that’s happening.

He pointed to residential development near the East Weymouth and Nantasket Junction stations, and a mixed-use development going up near the Cohasset station.

"Clearly the economy in the last two years has slowed down development everywhere," he said. "What is heartening is that even in this economy we are seeing indications of growth and new investment, either in the ground or in planning stages."

Others are less encouraged.

"I just attended a South Shore Chamber of Commerce . . . meeting that focused on Weymouth Landing, and there wasn’t one merchant down there who said he’s getting any benefit from Greenbush," said Hedlund. "Most commuters get on it, they get off it. They don’t visit local merchants. And most of the stations are isolated."

But Yasmin Landy said Greenbush was the reason she and her husband moved to Cohasset from Winchester, and they were on the train’s maiden voyage two Halloweens ago.

"We’d always loved the South Shore, but never considered [living here] before because the traffic was so bad and there were no other options for commuting," she said. "I take the train religiously because I work at Fidelity and my building is right next door [to South Station]. For me, it’s door-to-door."

So many people at her work take the Greenbush train, she said, that they call it the Fidelity Express.

"I love the train, but I have one complaint - the way we pay for parking," Landy said. "We have to fold four dollars, one at a time, in quarters and [push them into a slot]. People are always complaining about it. In a rainstorm, we’re all lined up waiting. It’s like the Fred Flintstone invention for paying for parking."

Pesaturo said the MBTA recognizes the problem and plans to introduce an easier pay-by-phone system for collecting parking fees at all commuter rail lots. Eventually parkers will be able to pay with smart cards, he said.

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